Friday, January 16, 2015

Just a Wall - Chapter Fifteen


Friday is my favorite day of the week. I’m still not being given any courier assignments, so the only fresh air I get is when I go to the market each day, and Friday afternoons when I visit Gitla at the wall and then meet Peter, Maria, and Tomas at the café. Over the past few weeks, Gitla and I have become good friends. We have a lot in common, especially our love of history. She plans to attend the university after the war to study archaeology. I had thought about becoming a history teacher if I didn’t marry right after graduation, but archaeology sounds much more exciting. We agreed to try to study and work together after the war, if Peter doesn’t mind my traveling occasionally.

Gitla told me all about her family. Her father, Szymon, is a shoemaker, so without a supply of new shoes, there is plenty of repair work for him in the Jewish ghetto. Yes, ghetto. That’s the word Gitla is using now. Her father trained her two brothers, Zalman and Ruben, in the same trade, and they are all kept very busy.

The boys spend a lot of their time combing through the trash looking for any materials that can be used to patch holes or replace broken laces. It isn’t easy. Because all of the supplies needed for daily life are so scarce, people rarely discard anything useful. Unfortunately, the best source of supplies is the death of another resident. They have to get there fast, though.

Gitla’s mother, Freda, is a skilled seamstress, so she’s also able to earn money for the family. Gitla’s day job is to scrounge for any scraps of fabric and thread her mother can use in her work. Freda had tried to teach Gitla to sew, but it just didn’t take. Gitla laughs at that because she isn’t a very good cook either.

Gitla has a younger sister, Rosa, who shows promise as a seamstress, so their mother gives Rosa some of the smaller sewing jobs. She’s too young to be out on the streets anyway. Her older sister, Sarah, was already married. Her husband, Meyer, joined the Polish army in 1939 and was killed on the first day of the German invasion. He never met their daughter, Zelda, who was born two days later. Zelda was sickly from birth and survived only a few weeks.

Gitla also has an older brother, Avrum, who escaped east when the Russian army evacuated. He planned to join the Russian army to fight the Germans, but with no mail, there’s no way to know what he’s doing or if he’s safe.

There have been a lot of changes in the world over the past few months. Germany conquered most of western Europe in May and June, and the Japanese continued their march through Asia and the Pacific nations. We heard on the radio last week that Italy, Germany, and Japan have signed a cooperation agreement. With the changes in Europe, the flow of news to Poland has been almost completely cut off. Peter’s father isn’t getting as many shipments from his suppliers. We still have some black market contacts, but it’s now more important than ever to ration the supplies we already have. The only place to eat meat is at a restaurant but the prices have increased to ridiculous levels.

We listen to the radio, which now has to be hidden, for a few minutes each evening. The Germans have been confiscating radios, so Father built a hamper-like box in the bathroom from some scraps of wood he found in an alley. We keep some towels tossed on top of the radio just in case the Germans raid our building. The news on the radio is always disappointing, but we have to listen anyway. England is all alone now. There was one report that the Americans might be sending them supplies and equipment, but I wonder why America hasn’t entered the war. I don’t know enough about world politics to understand why.

My figure filled out over the summer, and I can now fit into some of my mother’s clothes. Father moved all of her things into my room. Some of the blouses are loose in the chest though. When I told Peter that was because Mother had larger breasts than I do, he said, “I think yours are just the right size. If they were any larger, I wouldn’t know what to do with them.” He can be such a wise-ass sometimes. Since I don’t need my old clothing anymore, I’ve been bringing one or two items at a time to Gitla. If her family doesn’t need them, they can try to sell them or her mother can use the fabric.

With winter approaching, coal and wood are high on our list of priorities. Max is trying to arrange a trade: old shoes and clothing for coal and wood. If we really need to, we can sell or trade Mother’s jewelry, but I don’t think any of us is ready to part with that yet.

Father recently put me in charge of the supplies. I feel very proud that he trusts me. I don’t want to let him down, but I also feel the need to help Gitla however I can. We’ve already begun rationing certain things. The coffee and tea won’t last much longer. We probably should have limited our use on those months ago. Now we’ve cut back to one cup for each of us on Saturdays and Sundays only. Another reason I enjoy going to the café on Fridays; I can have a nice cup of tea.

Mother had gone overboard hoarding certain items. We have more cinnamon and vanilla extract than we could ever use, especially with the milk and egg shortages. She probably didn’t count on that. I’m thinking of asking a local bakery if they want to buy those items. I did give some of the cinnamon to Gitla, thinking they might be able to flavor their meager food supplies. I also gave her a couple of bottles of aspirin. They have few, if any, medications in the ghetto. I want to keep a large surplus, though, because Max says aspirin might have a high street value if the war continues much longer. The only other items I felt comfortable sharing are the sour ball candies I had purchased. Gitla and her family really enjoy the treats. Father, Max, and Peter still don’t know about Gitla, so I can’t tell them what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel like I’m lying to them by not letting them know, but I’m certain that I’m doing the right thing.

***

On my way to meet Gitla one Friday, I heard “Hello, Helena,” as I stepped out into the street. I looked up to see Wanda at her bedroom window. I waved to her and gave her a weak smile. That’s about as much as our relationship has mended over the past year.

Gitla ws already waiting for me. I handed her the few things I could spare that week, and she thanked me several times. I felt bad for not being able to do more, but I had to make sure my family was taken care of first.

“Newspapers! How wonderful!” Gitla exclaimed. “These are as valuable as gold in the ghetto. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, taking my hand.

“So, did you have a good week?” I asked. “The weather is turning cooler now. The air just seems cleaner.”

“Well, it hasn’t been a very good week. My Zaide Srul died three days ago. He had been suffering from malnutrition like the rest of us but also contracted dysentery. The end seemed to come too slowly. My mother was so distraught that we couldn’t have a proper funeral. She didn’t get out of bed until this morning.”

Zaide? What’s that?”

Zaide is the Yiddish word for grandfather. Bubbe is for grandmother.”

“Interesting. Those are actually similar to Polish. I’m so sorry to hear about your Zaide. Not to be morbid, but what happened to his body if you couldn’t bury him?”

“There is a cart that come through the ghetto every day to collect the dead bodies. All we could do was carry him down to the street and place his body on the cart when it came by. I don’t know what happens to them afterward, and I’m not sure that I really want to know. There are so many people dying every day that I’m sure the bodies are not being handled with the respect they deserve.”

“That’s sad. Are your other grandparents still living?”

Zaide Srul was married to Bubbe Chaja but she died when I was very young. They're my mother’s parents. My father’s parents, Moshe and Miriam, live with us. They are both in their sixties but relatively healthy. It’s interesting how some people catch every germ in their vicinity, and others are in good health right up until their last breath, dying of old age. What about your grandparents? I don’t remember you mentioning them.”

“Well, my father’s parents Andrej and Emilie are alive and well. They live near my Uncle Jozef, so they spend more time with them. We try to see them every couple of weeks. My other grandmother, Greta, died a few years ago. She’s the one who taught me how to cook, not that there’s much use for those skills now. My Grandpa Nick died last year, shortly after my mother died.”

I realized that I hadn’t told Gitla that story yet. Why, I wondered. It wasn’t a secret, but the subject just hadn’t come up for some reason. I shared it now and surprised myself that I was able to tell the story without weeping.

“I’m very sorry for your loss. I’d like to see a photo of your mother, your entire family, if you have any. It sounds like your Grandpa Nick was quite a character.” She paused for a moment. “The war has touched each of us in different ways. For example, this poor excuse for a wall. The Germans built it to limit our access to the rest of the city, but most of the people who have business outside the wall aren’t really affected by it. If it weren’t for the wall, you and I would never have met. Have you told anyone about our friendship?”

“You’re right. We wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for this stupid wall,” I said, giving the wall a punch. A brick fell off, almost hitting my foot, and we couldn’t keep from laughing. “I guess during times like these we need to latch on to any good fortune that comes our way. I haven’t told anyone about our friendship, not even Peter. I know I can trust him, as well as my father and Max, but I like having this secret to myself. Have you told anyone?”

“My family knows that I have a contact outside the wall, but I only share the details about our meetings with my sister, Rosa. I had to tell someone, and she’s surprisingly good at keeping secrets. I wish we had real schools because Rosa is very smart. In addition to speaking Yiddish and Polish, she is almost fluent in Russian, at age ten, if you can believe it. Zaide Moshe taught her. Of course, she has no use for Russian now, but maybe she will find a use for it in the future.”

“The best time to learn a foreign language is when you’re young. Considering Poland’s past, it’s likely that knowing Russian will be a good thing in the future. First we have to survive this nightmare.” I checked my watch. “I need to go. It’s my regular outing with Peter, Maria, and Tomas at the café. I’ll try to remember to bring some family photos next week. If you have any, I’d like to see them, to put faces to the stories you’ve told me. Is there anything specific that you need me to get for you? I don’t have access to much, but I can always try.”

Gitla thought for a moment. “Buttons! We could use buttons.”

“I think my mother kept a can of extra buttons. I’ll have to keep enough for my family, but I can bring you some.”

“That would be great. I think something as simple as a small bag of buttons will cheer up my mother. It’s the little things in life, right?”

“Absolutely! Have a safe week. See you next Friday.”

“Bye, and don’t forget those photos.”

I gave Gitla a nod and looked around to see if the coast was clear. As usual, this end of the street was very quiet. I had finally stopped looking over my shoulder for soldiers chasing me, but that one close call taught me to be more alert when outdoors. Hopefully, Uncle Jozef will begin giving me courier assignments again. I’ll have to insist instead of waiting. I think Jozef told Father about that day and Father asked him not to give me any new assignments. That isn’t fair. I’m seventeen now, an adult. I should be allowed to take a more active role in the resistance.

***

Maria and Tomas had arrived at the café already. They’re always early, which makes me feel like I’m always late. I greeted them, sat down, and poured my tea. Maria didn’t even look up. She mindlessly stirred her tea.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Tomas and I were both looking at Maria, waiting for her to tell me, but she just sat there, looking down.

Tomas finally spoke. “I asked Maria’s father for permission for us to become engaged. He said no. When I asked him why, he replied, ‘because I said so,’ and said that he didn’t want to hear any more talk about it.”

Maria began to weep. Tomas pulled her chair closer to his and put an arm around her.

“We don’t want to marry for a few months, in the hopes the war will end and we can have a church wedding. Why won’t he just let us get engaged?” Maria sobbed.

Tomas explained that his parents had given him permission, but until Maria turns eighteen next year she can’t marry without her parents' permission.

Maria’s father has always been an ass. “But wait a minute,” I said. “You need your parents' permission to marry, not to get engaged. Why don’t you just get engaged? It’s not really much different than your relationship now.”

“I think my father is trying to break us up,” Maria said “He never had any objections until recently. If he gets to the phone first and Tomas is calling, he tells Tomas that I’m busy and can’t come to the phone. Even when I leave the house for this weekly café get-together, he asks if I’m meeting Tomas and then shakes his head when I say yes."

"My mother loves Tomas,” she continued, taking his hand in hers. “She thought that maybe my father would see things differently if Tomas made a commitment to me. That’s why we decided to get engaged. We have no idea why he’s suddenly turned against Tomas.”

“Did you try just asking him?”

“My mother did, but he won’t tell her. I’m afraid to ask now. He might lock me away or take some other extreme action.”

“Well, you both know that you're committed to each other. I know it, too, so let’s just consider you two unofficially engaged. One more year and you won’t need your father’s permission to marry. If he won’t accept that, then he’ll have to live with the fact that he missed his only daughter’s wedding.”

Maria took my hand. “Thank you for that Helena. I know you’re right. I just need to figure out how to survive another year in that house.”

“You will. At least your father works a lot. That’ll make it easier.”

I noticed some dark clouds approaching from the west, and the wind picked up, so we hurried to finish our tea before the nasty weather arrives. Maria gave me a big hug and even managed a fake smile that I know was for my benefit. I watched Maria and Tomas walk away, his arm around her and her head resting on his shoulder. Things will work out, I’m sure of it. Maria’s father was acting strangely though. Maybe it’s just the stress of the German occupation. He has some kind of relationship with them, but I’m not sure exactly what it is.

I thought about Peter and me. We’re not in a rush to get married. Maybe next year, when I turn eighteen. Peter’s been dropping hints that he wants to take our relationship to the next level, meaning sex. I don’t think I’m nervous or scared about the physical act of sex. I’m more worried about getting pregnant at a young age. I love Peter, but I have things that I want to do with my life. Gitla and I are going to work on archaeological digs together. A big, fat raindrop landed on my head, and when I instinctively looked up at the sky, another one landed on my cheek. Time to get home.

***

At Sunday brunch, I took Uncle Jozef aside to ask to give me a more active role in the work he and his "study group" were doing. I don’t know why he, Max, and Peter insist on calling the group by that name. The family knows what they’re doing, at least in general terms. Only the people involved in the details know what’s really being done. This way, if questioned, their families can honestly say that they knew nothing about our covert activities. For additional safety, most of us involved in the movement know very little beyond our individual assignments. The leaders, on the other hand, like Uncle Jozef, know everything. I still don’t feel like telling anyone about my friendship with Gitla, but I’m now beginning to wonder if our connection might be useful to the resistance movement. Gitla told me that large groups of Jews have been rounded up for resettlement or relocated to labor camps. I need to speak to her before telling anyone. For now, Jozef gave me the standard "I’ll think about it."

***

Monday morning I decided to go over to the abandoned buildings near the wall to see if there was anything useful to be salvaged. Kate had the day off from work, so she came with me. It was the first really cold day of autumn. We decided to wear oversized coats so we could hide anything we might find and look like we’re just bundled up against the cold wind.

The ground level of each building had already been picked clean, but it didn’t look like anyone has bothered with the upper floors yet. The stairs were covered in dust, and there was no evidence of footprints. Some of the staircases were damaged from the bombing, but we were able to make our way safely upstairs by staying close to the wall where we found solid footing.

It’s eerie being on the second floor with the roof and sections of the walls missing, and we wondered if the residents were able to escape to safety.

We gathered up some useful items. I found a small bag of coal and even some extra light bulbs, an item that’s extremely scarce. Kate found a couple of boxes of candles and a case of sardines.

“How did you know about these buildings?” Kate asked me.

“I was just out walking one day and was curious about the wall, so I walked down this street.”

“You shouldn’t be walking around alone in the deserted areas of the city, especially after what happened to your mother. The Germans are just as evil as the Russians.”

“It’s okay,” I said “I’m careful to make sure I’m not being followed.” Suddenly we heard a crashing sound. “I wonder what that is.”

We carefully walked over to the rear window and saw that equipment had been brought in to demolish the wall. The section where Gitla and I meet ws already gone. On the other side of the wall, Jewish laborers were waiting with picks and shovels, presumably to clear the debris, and I could see stacks of bricks. A couple of the workers were mixing mortar.

“Oh no, Gitla,” I whispered to myself. My eyes began to tear up.

“Who is Gitla?” Kate asked. I guess I didn’t whisper as quietly as I thought. “Helena, what’s wrong?”

I shook my head and composed myself. “Let’s finish up and get out of here. I’ll tell you on the way home.”

We hurried to gather the things we'd found, hiding them in our coats and wearing the clothing items over our own clothes so we didn’t have to carry them. In addition to our hidden stash, we each grabbed whatever loose pieces of wood we could find and carefully made our way downstairs. The building we were in was very close to the street corner, so we were able to slip out and quickly turn the corner without anyone seeing us. The soldiers were focused on the wall and the workers.

Kate kept looking over at me, waiting for me to tell her what had upset me so much. I took a deep breath and told her about Gitla. We kept walking, no one paying attention to two young women bundled against the cold, carrying some wood. Before I knew it, we were home. Kate followed me into my apartment.

“I can’t believe you kept that secret for so long. Do you know how dangerous it is for you to be in that part of town alone…and befriending a Jew on the other side of a wall meant to keep her separate from us?”

“Are you mad at me for keeping a secret, taking a chance with my safety, or having a Jewish friend? I hope it’s not the latter because I know you’re better than that.”

“These days having a Jewish friend is taking a chance with your safety. I have no grudge against the Jews. I like Max’s friend Jakov, and I hope if he and his family are on the other side of that wall they’re safe. What if someone had seen you at the wall, and you were arrested, or worse? The Germans could have come for all of us. And what about Gitla’s family? They’re also being put at risk.”

Kate was clearly upset. She began removing the extra layers of clothes she was wearing, but it was as if they were attacking her.

“Kate, sit down for a minute. Take a deep breath. Let’s both take a deep breath. Okay?”

We sat quietly for a few minutes. I was beginning to feel warm with the extra layers of clothes, so I started to remove them. Kate did the same.

 “Maybe we’ll have a chance to go back,” she said. “There are still some things we might need. We’ll have to wait a few days to make sure the soldiers and workers are gone. Hopefully you can make contact with your friend.”

I looked up at Kate, tears in my eyes, “I’d like that. Hopefully the new wall is as poorly constructed as the old one. Oh, and for the record, I never intended to put anyone in danger. Gitla and I met by chance and discovered that we had a lot in common. I consider her to be a good friend whose family needs help, so I helped them.”

***

Four days. I had to wait four days to find out if Gitla and I can still meet. There was no point in going to the wall until Friday because she wouldn’t be there. I tried to stay busy to keep from worrying--cleaning, reviewing our list of supplies, anything. After two days, I was laughing at myself. I thought Mother was being neurotic when she busied herself with the same tasks I’m doing, but I now understand that she was just trying to focus her attention on things she could control instead of sitting and worrying about the things she couldn’t.

Friday finally arrived but the weather was really bad, rain and wind. Gitla and I normally don’t meet on days like today, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I ran out to the market in the morning. It wasn’t as crowded on bad weather days, so it was easier to purchase the scarcer food items. Today I was lucky enough to buy half a dozen eggs. They weren’t cheap but we needed the protein. I knew Father would approve.

During lunch, I jotted a note to Gitla. If I have to, I’ll toss it over the wall in the hope that she’ll find it. In the note, I called her “G” and signed it “H” and made sure not to mention specific meeting times in case someone else finds the note. I wrapped it into a ball around a small rock, secured it with a rubber band, and drew several red X’s on it to make it more visible. Then I bundled myself up and grabbed a canvas bag in case it was safe for me to go scavenging in those abandoned buildings again. On a day like today, the only people outdoors are those who have to be outdoors.

The street leading to the wall was empty. I ducked into the last building on the left to get out of rain. Through a broken window, I was able to get a look at this new wall. This one was built to last. No holes, and the debris that had provided me with a hiding place while Gitla and I visited has all been cleared away. There’s no way for us to meet face to face. After looking around to make sure the coast was clear, I went to the corner where I used to sit and gently tossed my note over the top of the wall. I wanted it to land in the corner. Just as I turned to walk away, I noticed a ball of paper on the ground.

Can it be?

I slipped it into my pocket and hurried back into the building. The paper was very delicate from being out in the rain, so I had to be careful not to tear it. Yes! It’s a note from Gitla. Great minds do think alike! She had torn a blank page from a book to use as note-paper. Some of the writing had already smudged, so I decided to lay it out on the floor to dry for a few minutes while I went upstairs to look for supplies. I found some more broken pieces of wood and a closet full of clothes and shoes. There were several pairs of fashionable high-heeled shoes, but I knew I had to be smart and take the practical shoes instead. There were also some men’s shoes, hopefully Father or Max’s size, and a few ties and belts.

By the time I got back downstairs, the note had dried a little. Gitla had just scribbled down an account of her week. The Germans were extending the wall now to fully enclose the ghetto. Her brother Zalman has been assigned to the labor crew even though he knows nothing about construction. He’s exhausted at the end of each day. The workers receive a cup of weak coffee in the morning and some broth and bread for lunch, but it wasn’t nearly enough food to give them strength for the work they’re doing. She hopes that my family and I are safe and healthy and thanked me for my friendship and the gifts of food, clothing, and medicine I had brought her.

I hope she’ll come back and find my note so she knows that she isn’t alone, just a little more cut off from the world. I wish I had paper and pencil with me now to write another note saying that. I’ll have to wait until next week before I’ll know whether she received my note. That damn wall isn’t going to keep us apart, at least not as long as I can do something about it. I carefully folded the note, placed it in my pocket, picked up my bag, checked the street and hurried home.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Just a Wall - Chapter Fourteen


Saturday afternoon Father and I are in the sitting room quietly reading. Max and Kate burst into the apartment laughing. I couldn’t help but smile at them. They made a great couple. Max walked over to me and held out the bag he was holding.

“Helena, I have a gift for you.”

I took the bag and opened it carefully, expecting something to jump out at me.

“Chicken? Two chickens? Where did you get fresh chickens?” I asked. A few months ago, who would have thought that the sight of a chicken would make me giddy.

“We’re celebrating tonight,” Max said, motioning Kate to come over. He put his arm around her, but before he could say anything else, Kate held up her hand for us to see her engagement ring. She was bouncing up and down, trying to contain her joy, but she wasn’t doing a very good job. We wrapped our arms around each other, both of us bouncing now. Max wrapped his arms around both of us and began bouncing too.

Even Father joined in. “This is wonderful news,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier for you. We need to toast. Wait here.” He disappeared into his bedroom and returned with a bottle of wine. “I told your mother that case of wine would come in handy,” he said with a smile.

He opened the bottle and filled three glasses, mine only half way. We raised our glasses. “To Max and Kate, many years of love and happiness.”

I placed the chickens in the ice-box. Yesterday I was able to buy some carrots and beans at the market that I can sauté and add to rice for a nice side dish. I couldn’t find eggs and milk this week, so we don’t have anything for dessert. No, wait, Mother had hidden some treats in one of the storage boxes. It took a while, but I found a box of Belgian chocolates and hid them in my room to bring out later as a surprise.

“So when do you plan on getting married?” I heard Father ask.

“Monday,” Max said. “With the churches closed we’ll just go to city hall for a civil ceremony.” Max took Kate’s hand, “We don’t really see any reason to put it off. The world is changing constantly and, lately, not for the better. We need to keep moving forward with our lives. You’ll be happy to know--at least I hope you will--that I rented the apartment next door. After Mr. Wozniak’s stroke last month, they had to move in with their daughter. His care was more than Mrs. Wozniak could handle.”

“I like that,” Father replied. “It’ll be good to have you close by.”

I got up to get dinner started. “I’ll help,” Kate said.

As soon as we got into the kitchen, I had to ask Kate the question I was dying to ask.

“Kate, you’re not pregnant, are you? I’m just wondering with the quickie wedding,” I whispered.

Kate laughed. “No, I’m not pregnant. We just don’t see a reason to put off the wedding. Anyway, I don’t think either of us is ready for a baby.”

“What are you two laughing about?” Max asked.

“Nothing,” Kate and I said at the same time, laughing again.

We decided to cook both chickens so we can each have a drumstick. Any leftovers can be reheated for lunch tomorrow. It’s so nice to have fresh meat again, and my rice dish turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. After dinner I surprised everyone with the box of chocolates. You would have thought we'd never seen chocolate before. This is the best evening we’ve had in quite a while.

Monday morning we went to city hall for the wedding. Kate’s parents were there, and they made us promise to come to their apartment for a special dinner that night. Kate was beautiful in an ivory suit, and her mother had given her a lovely bouquet of assorted roses tied together very tightly in a compact ball of color. They weren’t very fragrant, but I love the colors. Max was wearing his best suit, a brown pinstripe, and looked a little nervous. There are still two more couples ahead of them. Apparently, marriage ceremonies are performed only one day a week, and there’s usually a line. I was glad we arrived early because at least half a dozen couples came in after us.

Finally, it was Max and Kate's turn. Just before we walked into the room I opened my purse and took out my parents' wedding photo. Father smiled when he saw it and put an arm around my shoulders. “Nice,” he said.

Max and Kate walked up to the front of the room, and we sat in the chairs set out for witnesses. The service was short, just the basics, but Kate’s mother cried anyway. Father was holding one of my hands, and in my other hand, I held up the photo, as if Mother were watching the ceremony.

“You may now kiss the bride,” the official said. After the kiss, they signed the marriage certificate and that was it; my brother was a married man. Back out in the hall, Father announced that he had a wedding gift for the happy couple. He scheduled a professional photography session, and we all need to go to the studio now, Kate’s parents as well.

“What a wonderful gift!” Kate’s mother exclaimed. “Will I have time to fix my face when we get there?” she asked, dabbing the last tears from her face.

“I’m sure you will,” Father said with a smile as we headed out.

The photographer took four photos: one of Max and Kate; one with Max, Kate, and her parents; one with Max, Kate, Father, and me; and then one with all six of us. The photos will be ready by Friday. Father ordered three sets. I’ll pick them up Friday afternoon. Afterward, Kate’s parents hugged her as if they were sending her away for a long time. We’ll see them for dinner. I think they're just saying goodbye to their little girl.

“Alright Mom, that’s enough. We’ll see you tonight,” Kate said, finally breaking free.

When we arrived back at the apartment building, Max and Kate went into their apartment, and Father and I went into ours. That seemed strange. We had moved their things into the apartment yesterday, and Kate’s parents donated a few small decorative pieces. They wanted to re-paint the walls before buying any larger furniture items but with the war, there isn’t much of a paint selection available. A light beige color was all they could find. At least that matched everything. A few hours later we all walked over to Kate’s parents for the small dinner party they had thrown together. It was a lovely end to a lovely day.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Thirteen


The long winter was finally coming to an end. I know it wasn’t really longer than winters past, but it felt like it was. There are still a few areas of ice and snow in shady places, but the early blooming flowers are poking through the soil and will be in full bloom soon enough. Leaf buds are visible on the tree branches. I wanted to start a flower box in my bedroom window, but Father hasn’t able to purchase a new window to replace the one that was broken in the early days of the war. At least it’s only the bottom half of the window or my room would be very dark.

For the most part, we've learned to coexist with the Germans. Many of the details of daily life have been unaffected by their presence. Father goes to work every day. "As long as Polish businesses remain open, they still need their accountants," he liked to say. Max is still working part time at Uncle Jozef’s law firm and is continuing his law studies under Jozef’s tutelage. The firm has taken on more business since the German occupation. Several other firms shut down when their partners fled the country at the beginning of the war. They wanted to move their assets out of Poland before the Germans blocked them.

Max and Kate are still together, and their relationship is getting serious. Max bought a small engagement ring and plans to propose soon. Kate and I have come to know each other very well, and I’m looking forward to her joining the family. Kate’s mother had a couple of frantic months. There were rumors that the Germans were confiscating art collections from private citizens, and Kate's apartment was full of them. Her father pried up the floor boards under the heaviest pieces of furniture to hide the art and antiques. Kate's mother then had to use her decorating budget to purchase ugly knickknacks that the Germans wouldn’t look twice at. Her hope was that, if the Germans did enter their apartment, they would think there wasn’t anything worth finding.

My daily life consists mainly of mundane housework and cooking. I know it’s my responsibility to take care of Father and Max with Mother gone, but there really wasn’t that much to do. I go to the market most mornings to purchase what we need. Some foods, especially meat, have become scarce because most incoming shipments go straight to the Germans. Some foods are rationed, so we have to be creative. Luckily, Uncle Jozef has contacts who trade in the black market, which is bringing in foods from some of the farms in the area. It’s located in the basement of a building on the outskirts of town, and I go once a week to purchase some of the items I can’t get at the regular markets.

I spend a lot of my time reading. Before the Germans destroyed the university library, Uncle Jozef organized his “study group” to remove as many of the books and other collections as possible. Most of it is sitting in boxes in a hidden storage room in the basement of the law office. Max brings me a new book every week. With school closed, I don’t bother with math and science, neither of which I was good at anyway. I focus on history and literature, but I’ll read pretty much anything I can get my hands on. Father gives me a small allowance each month to purchase used books from street vendors for us to share.

Peter and I have a strong relationship. Father won’t give permission for me to marry until I’m eighteen, so we’ll have to remain unofficially engaged until then. During the winter, Peter and I met Maria and Tomas at the café every other Friday afternoon. Now that the weather is getting warmer, we hope to meet every Friday again. Father said that as long as he and Max have paying jobs, he’ll be able to give me an allowance for personal expenses. A lot of families don’t have that, so I feel very lucky.

Tomas disappeared for four weeks when the Germans “volunteered” him for a road-work crew. Maria had convinced herself that he was dead, but he finally returned home, ragged and thin. The toes on his left foot were severely frostbitten and had to be amputated, but he’s already up and about using a cane.

Father has been having fun making Peter work for his approval. I did figure out a way for Peter to really get on his good side. When Peter’s father receives shipments of liquor and wine from other countries, the Germans monitor the shipments, searching for hidden weapons in the crates. They don’t pay any attention to the packing materials, though, so the newspapers hidden in the crates make it safely past their checkpoints. Peter brings these to the “study group,” and when we’re finished translating and reading them, we share the newspapers with our families. I told Max to let Peter bring them to Father. Father loves his newspapers, so he actually looks forward to Peter’s visits. The news is a few weeks outdated, but "any news is better than no news," he likes to say. Peter also brings us a few treats. Apparently the liquor and wine suppliers are able to fill some of the bottles with small food items and medical supplies. Peter brings packets of miniature meats, such as salami, and cheeses every few weeks.

Over the past couple of months, there have been a lot of changes in the city. Those Poles and Jews who had the money and connections to escape are already gone. The last of the remaining Jews have been forced to relocate to the already overcrowded Jewish section of the city, just beyond the city hall. It turns out that the wall that was being constructed in that area late last year was not built to enclose the Jewish section. Rather it was built to restrict their movement into and out of certain parts of the city and is only a few blocks long. Father was right; it is just a wall. And it isn’t a very good wall at that, having been built by unskilled Jewish laborers who were “volunteered” for the task.

Uncle Jozef agreed to let me do more than just translate documents to help the resistance against the Germans. I’ve already completed several assignments carrying messages and small packages between Jozef and his contacts around the city. Father knows about it, but Max assured him that he’s keeping an eye on me and won’t let me take on anything too dangerous. The used books I purchase from the street vendors come in handy for hiding messages. I can walk down the street without being noticed and “accidentally” leave the book behind on a park bench or store counter. That’s also how I pick up some messages.

I feel very proud to be making even a small contribution to the resistance. I wish I could tell Maria what I’m doing, but I don’t trust her not to tell her father, who has developed close ties to the Germans. Maria was bragging about his reporting two Jewish children being hidden in the building next door to theirs. I don’t know how he found out about them, but both children and the family hiding them were forced out into the street and murdered on the spot. Lately, I feel like I’m continuing my friendship with her just so I can listen to her stories and maybe glean something useful from them.

I’m on my way out to deliver another message, this one hidden inside a ragged copy of The House of Seven Gables. I made sure to read the novel before cutting out a section the size of the small packet I was to carry. One important rule for this job: I’m not allowed to read the messages. I’m the courier, plain and simple.

As I headed out, I remembered the instructions Max gave me before my first assignment. First, try to stay on busy sidewalks whenever possible so I blend into the crowd. Second, don’t stare at the ground like I’m afraid or have something to hide. Walk erect, making eye contact with people. If it’s a nice day, admire the birds and flowers. And, finally, if I’m being followed, or feel like I’m being followed try to keep walking normally and then duck inside a shop to try to give the person the slip. Don’t run unless absolutely necessary, and never run home or to a home or place of business of someone we know. I know the city well enough to be able to shake anyone tailing me.

I’m heading over to the park today to sit on a bench near the northeast corner of the park and pretend to read the book. At exactly three o’clock, I can expect to see a woman wearing a green hat with a brown ribbon. When I see her, I’ll pretend to sneeze, place the book on the bench, take out a handkerchief, and blow my nose. After that, I’ll stand and walk away without looking back, leaving the book.

Everything went as planned until, as I was walking away, something made me glance back toward the bench. Two German soldiers were questioning the woman in the green hat. They had the book. She was motioning that she didn’t know who left the book. The soldiers went over to an old man sitting across the way and asked him something. The next thing I knew, they were pointing at me. Shit! I turned to the right instead of taking my planned route home. It was difficult not to look back, but somehow I managed not to. My heart was racing.

As I came around the side of the building out of sight of the bench, I looked at my watch and made a comment to myself to indicate that I was late for an appointment, hoping that anyone near me would think I was picking up my pace because I was late for an appointment. At the next corner, I turned right again. This street was empty, so I began to run. I could hear loud footsteps behind me, so I turned again and ducked down under some stairs. I didn’t have a clear line of vision to the street, but I could hear the sound of boots on the cobblestones. The soldiers ran past my hiding place and stopped. I was sure they could hear my heart beating. It felt like it was about to jump out of my chest. Even my watch’s ticking sounded loud enough for them to hear. After a moment or two, I heard the boots again, this time just jogging instead of running, but definitely heading away from me. I let out a deep sigh.

I decided to wait five more minutes to make sure they were gone and so I could calm my nerves. The situation was scary but also invigorating. I’ve never been in trouble before, and coming so close to serious trouble was thrilling. I know I couldn’t tell Father about this, but Uncle Jozef needed to know so he could find out if the other courier was safe and if the message was intercepted.

I carefully poked my head out and didn’t see anyone. Just as I was about to rise, someone stepped out through of the door above my hiding place, so I stayed down, pretending to tie my shoes. The lady barely noticed me. I walked in the opposite direction from where the soldiers had gone. As I was walking, I found myself glancing back and to the side until I realized that was making me look guilty. Suddenly I noticed that I had walked all the way to the already crumbling wall around the Jewish section. The street running along the wall was quiet, so I turned the corner to rest for a moment and make sure the soldiers hadn’t doubled back.

I was near one end of the wall, where it abuts a bombed-out building. Most of the buildings on both sides of the wall had suffered severe damage. The wall itself appears to have been constructed from some of the building rubble.

The silence was suddenly broken by scraping and shuffling sounds in the corner. I listened for a few seconds and then slowly approached the wall. There were some broken crates and rusting barrels scattered around. It’s probably just a cat or dog scrounging for food, but my curiosity got the better of me and I had to look. As I got closer, I noticed a hole in the wall and the sudden flash of a hand disappearing on the other side. Definitely not an animal.

“Hello?” I whispered.

No response.

“Hello? Who's there? It’s okay, you don’t have to be afraid.”

I thought I heard a response but couldn’t make it out. So, after looking around to make sure no one can see me, I crawled over a couple of crates and kneeled down at the hole.

“Hello?” I said again.

“Hello,” the person replied. It was a girl’s voice.

“Hi, my name is Helena. What’s your name?” I tried to get a glimpse of her face but she was off to the side.

“My name is Gitla,” she replied.

“What are you doing?” I asked, pulling over a piece of wood to sit on.

“I was just looking for a quiet place to sit and think when I noticed this hole. I was curious to see if there’s anything to watch on your side, so I tried to make it a little bigger.”

“Well, it’s very quiet on my side. That’s why I’m here. I sort of got into a little trouble and need to lay low for a while.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Sorry, I can’t say. Are you a Jew? How old are you?”

“Yes, I’m Jewish. We all are on this side of the wall. I’m sixteen years old, almost seventeen.”

“I’m sixteen, too. Do you have a school to go to? We don’t. The Germans closed them all at my level.”

“No, no school. There are some informal schools for the younger children to make sure they learn the basics, but most of the older children have to try to find work or help out at home, so they don’t bother with school for us. I do have some books that I trade with other people.”

“I really miss school. I have access to books as well, so I read a lot of literature and history.” I leaned over directly in front of the hole. “Can I see what you look like?”

Gitla leaned forward. She had blue eyes and long, dark curly hair. Very pretty.

“I’ve seen you before, just before the war started. My mother and I were in a Jewish market. You and I bumped into each other. I wanted to tell you how much I liked your curly hair, but you hurried off before I had a chance. This is a weird coincidence.”

“I’m sorry,” Gitla said. “I don’t remember you. I like your straight hair. My hair is so difficult to manage.”

I laughed. “I guess we always want what we don’t have.”

“Very true,” Gitla said with a giggle. “Do you have the time? I need to be at work at five. I work the dinner shift at the soup kitchen, serving and cleaning up.”

“Yes, it’s a little past four. I should get going. I have an important phone call to make. It was very nice meeting you. Maybe we can meet here once a week. It looks like a nice quiet spot on both sides of the wall.”

“I’d like that,” Gitla said.

“How about Friday afternoons, just after lunch, weather permitting?” I suggested.

“That’s a good time for me. It’ll be nice to get to know you and hear about life out there in the world.”

“Well, it’s not very exciting out here, and my world is very small, but you’re right, it will be nice to have someone new to chat with. Ooh, wait, I just remembered,” I said, reaching into my pocket. “Here, I have a couple of candies. Would you like one?”

“Yes, thank you very much. It’s been months since I had a treat,” Gitla said, quickly unwrapping the candy and placing it in her mouth. “That is so good! Thank you again.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll try to bring more next time. I’ll see you soon.”

“Goodbye. Have a pleasant week.”

I peeked out to make sure no one was around. The street was still deserted. The buildings were so badly damaged and I doubted anyone lived in them anymore. This was a good spot for secret meetings.

As I began my walk home I looked back at my secret corner. A new friend, very exciting. And what a coincidence, the girl from the park and the market. I wondered what the odds were of that happening. People were beginning to head home after work, so the streets were becoming more crowded. Good for me; I felt more comfortable on busy sidewalks than quiet streets right now.

As soon as I arrived home, I called Uncle Jozef at work to tell him what had happened. He was glad that I was able to act quickly to get myself to safety, but he hadn’t heard yet if the other courier had been so lucky. He knew I was worried about her and promised to let me know as soon as he found out anything. No more courier assignments for a while though. We need to make sure that the Germans weren’t looking for me. I didn’t tell him about Gitla. That’ll be my secret, at least for now. Father and Max will be home soon, so I quickly washed and started making dinner. Soup and crackers…again. Each week I hoped to find something interesting at the market to break the monotony, but that rarely happened.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Twelve


It was a cold, gray day, the first Christmas after my mother died. I decorated the apartment, but my heart wasn’t really in it. We couldn’t find a real Christmas tree this year, so Max pieced one together from things he found around the house. It didn’t look too bad once it was covered with a lot, and I mean a lot, of garland and tinsel.

 We have one new ornament this year. When we cleaned out Grandpa Nick’s apartment, we found a box of family photos. Luckily, Father had seen them before and helped us identify each one. I organized them into a photo album which I find myself browsing through at least once a week, looking at photos of Mother when she was younger. Max made a copy of one photo for me, a professional sitting with my mother and her parents. She must have been about two years old. I made the copy into an ornament, hanging it where it’s visible from everywhere in the sitting room and kitchen.

Peter arrived about an hour before we were to leave to go to Uncle Jozef’s house. Aunt Rose was kind enough to let me invite Peter and his father. Peter's father will meet us there. He wanted to keep the liquor store open until at least noon for the last-minute Christmas shoppers. Many of the German soldiers don’t have their families with them, and they apparently try to drown their loneliness by drinking themselves into a stupor. At least that’s what Peter’s father said.

A few days after we buried Mother, the Russians pulled out of town, and the Germans reclaimed it. Peter’s father made a point of letting both know that he would offer them special prices, which, of course, Peter sees as a form of collaboration with our enemies. His father figures that a drunk soldier is a stupid soldier, and we might all be better off. That’s a nice theory but we haven’t seen it proved yet.

Peter and I rarely have time alone together. Father and Max had gone out to take care of something, so Peter and I were able to relax on the sofa and talk. Talking quickly led to kissing and, just as Peter slipped his up under my sweater, I heard the key in the door. Max stepped through the door first, grinning as Peter finished his leap to the far end of the sofa.

“Well, well, look who’s here,” Max said with a smirk on his face. “And what have you two been up to?”

I shot a nasty look in his direction.

Peter jumped to his feet as my father walked in. “Hello, sir,” he said nervously, extending his hand. “It’s good to see you again. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too, Peter. I’m glad that you and your father can join us today. Is he here?”

“Thank you, sir. He’ll meet us at Jozef’s house a little later. It’s been a long time since Christmas Day has been more than just the two of us, so this is a treat. We have some gifts for all of you,” Peter said as he reached for the bag near the front door. He handed my father a bottle of brandy and gave Max and I small boxes.

“Oh, Peter, not jewelry!” Max exclaimed, jokingly. “You shouldn’t have.”

“Wise ass,” I said. “Just open your gift.”

It was a beautiful pen. “Thanks, Peter. This is really nice.”

My turn. I wanted to tear into the wrapping paper but it was too pretty. I carefully pulled back the tape, set the paper aside, and opened the little box. It was a beautiful necklace with a heart-shaped locket. “Oh, Peter, it’s beautiful,” I said as he took it from me and fastened it around my neck. I gave him a kiss and hug.

“Open it,” he said. I opened the locket, and inside were the faces of my parents on their wedding day. My tears started flowing and I hugged him again.

“Thank you so much. I couldn’t have asked for a more meaningful gift.”

“Max helped me with the pictures,” he said.

Max got a big hug, too. I went to Father to show him. “Lovely.  Good job, Peter,” he said and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

I put my arms around Peter. “It’s like she’s with us.”

“Helena, Max, I need to speak with you in my bedroom for moment. Peter, please excuse us.”

I gave Peter another kiss and followed Father and Max into the bedroom. Father closed the door.

“I’m sorry to do this on Christmas Day but I need to show you something, and then we’ll hopefully never have to mention it again.” He opened the paper bag he'd been holding and pulled out a pistol.

“A gun!” I said. “Why do we need a gun?”

He handed the pistol and bag to Max, kneeled down on the floor, slid some items on the closet floor forward, and used his thumbnail to pull up one of the floorboards. “This is why.”

There were bundles of cash in the hole, as well as Mother’s jewelry and the pocket watch that Grandpa Andrej gave Father for his eighteenth birthday.

“I’m placing the gun in here to be used only in case of emergency. The gun is loaded. The safety is on, see here, and this is a box of extra ammunition. The rule applies to both of you. You are only to open this in case of a real emergency. If there’s one thing the past few months have taught us, it’s that there are a lot of things in this world that we can’t control. Hopefully we’ll never need this cash, never need to sell these valuables, and certainly never need to use this gun, but they’re here just in case. Okay? Any questions?”

Max and I shook our heads as he concealed the hiding place. “Ready to go celebrate Christmas?”

We bundled up to walk over to Uncle Jozef’s. The streets and sidewalks have snow and ice on them from the last snowfall, but this is usually their condition until the first warm days of spring. There are a few others out, probably on their way to visit family. If the Catholic churches hadn’t been closed indefinitely, there would be more people outdoors, but the Germans won’t allow the churches to be reopened.

One thing I noticed as we walked along was the absence of armbands. The Jews are staying indoors. When the Germans reoccupied the city, they ordered all Jews still living in the center of town to wear armbands identifying themselves as Jewish, and later to begin relocating to the Jewish district. We live just beyond what's considered the center of town. When the order took effect, we realized for the first time that some of our neighbors were Jewish. I counted four Jewish families on our block. Even my father was surprised.

A new order was issued last week requiring that every Jew in the town move into the Jewish district by the end of the year. Max’s friends have received news that the Germans have assigned Jews to begin building a wall around the district to fence themselves in. Father told me not to worry, that it was just a wall, and that it might even keep them safe from daily dealings with the Germans. Something doesn’t sound right with his logic, but for now, I accepted it.

As we walked along, I read the posters, warnings, and orders that the Germans have posted all over town. After I got past the initial grief of losing my mother and grandfather, I became very angry, wanting to seek revenge against the Russians for their deaths. I begged Max to let me join his "study group." When the Germans reoccupied the city, they closed all of the schools above the middle school level, and I was bored. I needed a project, as well as an outlet for my anger.

Max explained to me that he and his friends weren’t out there shooting our enemies. They’re involved in gathering and sharing information, and making plans for a more active revolt in the future. He spoke to Uncle Jozef, and they decided to assign me the task of learning German. They needed someone who could read German and translate it into Polish, and who could also understand spoken German to help gather information. Max brought me some books from the university library. At first I was bored, but little by little, I came to enjoy it, especially the first time I was able to translate a stolen document into Polish. I felt like a secret agent. Peter and I never speak about what each of us is doing for the resistance. We didn’t want our relationship to be about that.

***

Aunt Rose had placed a few decorations in the window. She prefers to overdo it, but Uncle Jozef warned her that they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. When we entered their house, I subconsciously took a small step backward as everyone descended on us.

“Merry Christmas.”

“So good to see you.”

“You’re looking well.”

“Max, Helena, you both look like your mother.”

I just smiled, and replied in kind, letting Peter guide me through the mass of people. The party was larger than past gatherings. As Rose explained to me later, a lot of people couldn’t travel to visit family because of the war so she started inviting everyone. She couldn’t go all out on the decorations, so she was going to cook and entertain instead.

Peter noticed that his father had already arrived, so we went to say hello. After that Peter and Max disappeared, probably to have some top secret meeting with Uncle Jozef, so I went to the kitchen to see if I could help. Rose put me in charge of decorating the cookies, probably thinking that I had inherited my mother’s flair for all things baked. She couldn’t help but giggle when she saw how inept I was at frosting cookies.

“Don’t worry, Helena. No matter what they look like, they all taste the same.”

The party turned out to be a lot of fun. It was our first real social outing since Mother’s passing. If we can survive this, we can survive anything. Rose loaded us up with leftovers, still worried that we’d starve without her.

I invited Peter to come over for lunch the next day. I was so excited when he gave me the locket that I forgot to give him his gift. Father had to work, and I was hoping Max would give us some privacy. I knew he wouldn’t make it easy, but he strangely disappeared just before Peter arrived for lunch. I asked Peter if he knew where Max had gone, and he told me that Max had a lunch date of his own. “Her name is Kate,” he said.

Interesting! Now when Max teases me about Peter, I can tease him about Kate. Peter and I had a very nice afternoon. I still find it amazing that after almost three months we still have so much to talk about. Of course, we don’t spend all of our time talking. I feel very comfortable with Peter, but when I felt his hand sliding up my skirt, I stopped him.

“Wait, Peter, no. I’m not ready for that.”

“Ready for what?” he asked, his hand still on my inner thigh.

“You know what I mean,” I said as I removed his hand and pulled my skirt back down. “I’m not ready.”

“I don’t mind waiting because I know it will be worth the wait, but do you have any idea when you will be ready?” he smirked, sliding his hand up my thigh.

 “I don’t know," I said as I blocked his hand again. "I’m only sixteen. My mother would want me to wait until I’m married.”

“Is that what you want?”

“Again, I don’t know. This is all new for me. That little voice in my head, the one telling me to slow down, sounds a lot like my mother’s voice. Until I figure out what I want, it’s probably a good idea for me to listen to it. I do know that I love you,” I said, taking his hand.

Peter put his arms around me as we lay down next to each other on the sofa. “I love you, too.” He pulled me close.

“I promise, you’ll be the first to know when I am ready.”

“Well, I certainly hope so.”

Peter and I were asleep on the sofa when my father walked through the door. I opened my eyes to see him standing there, looking at us. I looked at my watch.

“Oh my goodness, it’s that late already?” I exclaimed.

Peter sat up and fumbled for his shoes, very aware that my father was still staring at us.

“I’m sorry Father. I’ll get dinner started. Peter, would you like to stay?”

My father finally spoke. “I think Peter should leave. You two have seen enough of each other for today.”

I was stunned.

“Father, no. Nothing happened. After lunch we were talking and must have dozed off. We weren’t --,” I search for the right word. “Intimate. That’s the truth.”

“I think Peter should leave anyway, so we can talk.”

“Not a problem, sir. My father is probably wondering where I am. He expects me to help him with the year-end inventory count.”

I handed Peter his coat. He whispered a thank you for the leather gloves I gave him and hurried past my father out the door. I rushed to the kitchen to start dinner.

“Where’s Max? I thought he had the day off from work,” Father asked

I didn’t want to get Max in trouble by saying that he had a secret date. “I don’t know. He’s been out most of the day.”

He placed his coat and hat on the coat rack, set his briefcase next to the door, poured himself a drink, and sat in the arm chair. We were having the Christmas leftovers for dinner, so it didn’t take long to reheat them. Father didn’t say a word until we finished eating. I wish Max had come home to take the pressure off of me. After I cleared the table, Father told me to sit down.

“Helena. I know you’re a young woman now, and I wish your mother was still here. She could handle this situation better than I can. I know she already told you about the intimate relationship between a man and a woman. Peter is older than you and may already have some experience in these matters. I don’t know. I do know that I can’t lock you away. All I can do is hope that we raised you to respect yourself and you won’t allow yourself to feel forced to do things you’re not ready for. Also, I hope you know that I’m here if you need to talk about anything. If you’re more comfortable speaking with a woman, I’m sure Aunt Rose will be happy to help.”

I took his hands in mine. “I know you’re here if I need you, and you and Mother did instill me with good values. I swear, nothing inappropriate happened between Peter and me today, or ever.”

He squeezed my hands and smiled.

“Peter and I had a talk about the physical part of our relationship and he understands that I’m not ready for, well, that. If he ever tries to force me, he’ll be out the door before he knows what hit him.”

Father smiled and kissed the top of my head tenderly as he walked to his bedroom. I know that wasn’t easy for him. Mother usually handled the more personal conversations. As he gets to know Peter better, he’ll see that Peter is a good man.

The door opened, and Max walked in with a big smile on his face.

“Great, now you come home,” I said.

“What? What did I miss?”

Father poked his head out to confirm that it was just Max arriving home.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“Just out with friends.”

“Uh huh.” Father raised his eyebrows and shook his head, going back into his room.

“So, how was your secret date?” I asked.

“Date, what date?"

“Don’t play coy with me. Peter told me about Kate.”

“Damn Peter. He’ll get his. Kate’s a girl I met at the office and we’ve gone out a few times. It’s nothing serious, not yet anyway.”

“What’s with all the secrecy?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just want to see how things work out first before I bring her home. You’ll meet her next weekend. She invited all three of us--well, I guess four with Peter if I don’t kill him first--to a small gathering for New Year’s Eve.”

“Good. I look forward to meeting her. And leave Peter alone. If you hurt him I might have to hurt you,” I said, shaking a fist at him.

“Ooh, I’m scared,” he said, practically sticking his nose into the baking dish I pulled from the oven. “So what’s for dinner? Ah, Christmas leftovers. Yum!” He stood in the kitchen grinning, eating from the baking dish. Typical!

***

I wanted to bake something special for the New Year’s Eve party, but I wasn’t able to purchase any eggs this week. I got  to the market at my regular time but they were either sold out already or didn’t receive a supply this week. There were some nice vegetables, so I decided to make a vegetable tray with dip. We usually eat all of our vegetables cooked, so I think this will be a nice change. Plus, it won’t get cold on the walk to Kate’s apartment.

Peter came by our apartment with two bottles of wine and walked over with us. Kate answered the door and her face lit up when she saw Max. She’s very pretty, with skin and hair darker than I’d expected. Max told me later that Kate’s paternal grandparents are Italian and had moved to Poland for business reasons shortly after her father was born. She had a lot of family back in Italy.

“You have a beautiful home,” I said to Kate. “If you have some time later, I’d like to know about some of the antiques.”

“Thank you. The apartment is small, thanks to my father. It’s just the three of us and he’s too thrifty to splurge on a larger place, even though he can afford it. My mother decided that if she’s stuck with a small apartment, it might as well be nicely decorated. My father has tried to get her to stop spending money but decided the best thing to do was to give her a decorating allowance. No exceptions. If she spends all of the money in January, that’s it for the year. So far his plan has worked well.”

Kate isn’t shy at all. I like that, and I already like her. Max has good taste.

“Where can I set this down? It’s a tray of fresh vegetables and dip.”

“Oh, here, on the big table.” She removed the wrapper and immediately took a piece of carrot. “That is so good. My mother always overcooks vegetables, so it’s nice to crunch.”

Max and Peter came over. I feel like such a grownup. Max and Kate, and Peter and I at a New Year’s Eve party; no small children around. Father found some new friends to discuss politics with, so he’s enjoying himself. I need to ask him if I can have some champagne at midnight. I meant to ask earlier but forgot If he says no, I’ll be the only person at the party without an alcoholic beverage, and everyone will know I’m still a kid. He had better say yes.

The one long dinner table was set with beautiful china and fresh flowers. The ladies began bringing out the food, so I helped. There were a total of twenty guests. After we were seated in our assigned seats, Kate’s father offered the blessing, ending with a hope for peace in the upcoming year. There was a hardy “amen” to that as we began passing the dishes around the table. Father poured me a half a glass of wine so I won’t feel left out. How did he know? The first sip tasted a little bitter, but the second was much better. It’s a nice treat to help make the night special.

After the meal, coffee, brandy, and desserts were set out on the table where the appetizers had been located. I went straight for the chocolate layer cake. Peter selected something called a cannoli, an Italian dessert, Kate told us. Within seconds he had powdered sugar all over his lips and fingers.

“Tasty, but messy,” he said as I helped him clean up.

As midnight approached, Kate and her parents handed out party favors and hats, and poured the champagne. Father gave me a nod that it was alright for me to take a glass. Without the local radio station we have to rely on Kate’s father’s pocket watch for the countdown.

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, Happy New Year!

There was kissing and hugging, everyone tooting their horns and raising their glasses to 1940. Father, Max, and I had a group hug, and Father kissed each of us on the cheek. I noticed a little sadness in his eyes, probably missing Mother. I suddenly felt a little guilty that I hadn't thought of her once the entire evening.

The party broke up about an hour later. We walked a couple of blocks out of the way so that Peter didn't have to walk home alone. About two blocks from our apartment, we saw two German soldiers walking toward us, obviously drunk. We were in the middle of the block, so there was nothing we could really do but lock arms and just keep walking. As we got close, one of the soldiers tripped over the curb, caught his balance, and said “Happy New Year!” very loudly.

“Happy New Year,” we replied, Father and Max tipping their hats We continued walking. So did the soldiers, thankfully. I hated being on edge when the Germans were nearby, and I wasn't going to let this spoil my good mood. It was the perfect end to a far-from-perfect year.